SLOVENIA IS THE SMALLEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD CUP, WITH A POPULATION OF TWO MILLION PEOPLE—AND AT TIMES DURING QUALIFYING, IT SEEMED AS IF ALL OF THEM WERE BEHIND THE ball. But there was no arguing the effectiveness of coach Matjaz Kek's defend-first philosophy. Slovenia allowed just four goals in its 10 qualifying matches and then showed considerable moxie by beating Russia—a Euro 2008 semifinalist—in a two-leg playoff to clinch a berth in South Africa.
The heart of the attack is Milivoje Novakovic, an effective striker who knows how to use his size and strength to hold the ball. The 6' 4" target man scored 16 goals for Cologne in the 2008-09 Bundesliga and led Slovenia with five goals during qualifying.
Novakovic is most dangerous in the air, placing a premium on good crosses. In Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm, Kek has a pair of talented young wingers who can provide reliable service. But the most intriguing youngster likely won't start. Rene Krhin is a 20-year-old who plays for Inter Milan. He has only four caps, but Kek has faith in the kid: He brought him on as a sub in the second leg of the playoff with Russia.
No one was happier than Bostjan Cesar to see Slovenia in the same group as England. When the two countries met in a friendly last September, Cesar tangled with and was kicked by Wayne Rooney in the Slovenian box—and was somehow called for a foul. After Cesar left with an ankle injury, Frank Lampard converted the penalty kick and England eventually won 2-1. "I don't have fond memories of that game," Cesar said. "[Rooney] deliberately tried to injure me.... We will give our all to make the game against us an unpleasant experience for Rooney and his teammates."
The 6' 3" Cesar and the 6' 2" Marko Suler anchor a solid back four, but the last line of defense might just be the best: Samir Handanovic. The Udinese goalkeeper has been linked to Manchester United and AC Milan. It's not hard to see why: He has a daunting combination of size (6' 4") and agility, and he kept five clean sheets in his last six World Cup qualifiers.
Slovenia is a big, well-organized team that will be tough to break down and is very good in the air. If it sticks with what got it to the World Cup—defending and counterattacking—it will likely make every match interesting.